Orson Welle’s 1941 film Citizen Kane is a metaphor for the betrayal of principles and corrupting nature of power, which pervades every aspect of one’s life, inviting a multiplicity of perspectives, which influence the viewer. So too does the viewer’s personal content and most importantly Welles’ innovative cinematography and deviation from cinematic norms, ….impact of childhood, power and wealth on relationships,
The historical context of Citizen Kane contributed significantly to its style and context. An autobiographical element is apparent in that Welles, like Kane lost his mother as a child, prompting us to view the film as a warning against a lack of parental love. Popularly Kane’s character is based on William Hurst, a media mogul whose “yellow journalism” strongly swayed public opinions. Thus the film can be viewed as a critique of Hurst’s unethical use of media powers. It is our democratic aversion to falsehoods that allow us to understand the film as challenging the abuse of power by the hegemonic oligarchy. The current controversy surrounding Rupert Murdoch, highlights why the great and proactive ideas in the film continue to resonate with us today.
The issue of neglect and alienation in its diverse emotional representation is explored throughout the film. Through a psychological presentation of Kane’s character, his emotional state is attributable to his lack of a nurturing childhood. Prior to being removed from his parents, Kane is depicted in a long shot, playing in the over exposed snow, a symbol of his innocence. As the camera zooms out, a link is established between Kane and the proceedings inside the room. The use of deep focus throughout the negotiation between Mrs. Kane and Mr. Thatcher highlights Kane’s powerlessness, as he becomes background, oblivious to the ‘transaction’ inside. Kane’s parents ironically attempt to conciliate him with the knowledge that he will “probably be the richest man in America someday”, thus fallaciously connecting interpersonal relationships and love with wealth, foreshadowing his resultant inability to maintain either of these. Thus, through Welles editing, he prompts the audience to sympathise with Kane’s eccentricities as a tragic result of lost parental love.
Welles also prompts us to empathize with Kane’s perception that wealth can buy anything, including love, and how this impacts all of his relationships; epitomised through the breakdown of his bond with Susan. Kane’s deteriorating connections align with critic Laura Millney’s theory that Kane possesses a Freudian “pre-oedipal love” for his mother, affecting how he relates to women. Welles uses costuming and music to prompt an understanding of this idea in the audience. Susan’s motherly costuming when they first meet combined with the repetition of Mrs. Kane’s musical theme highlights Kane’s attempt to satisfy his craving for maternal love. Ironically, by earnestly attempting to shower Susan with wealth and opportunity, Kane only alienates Susan by giving her ‘what she never wanted’. Kane’s relationship with Susan becomes unacceptably domineering as the material corruption of wealth, evident through the circle of news and reviews around Susan, becomes physical evidence of her suffering and his egomania. Susan’s isolation due to Kane’s dominance is highlighted in her apathetic interest in jigsaw puzzles, a symbol of her fragmented identity. Kane’s demanding tone, “What are you doing?” highlights his controlling nature, which is juxtaposed to Susan’s child-like whining “I want to have fun…please, Charlie?” The long shot portraying her dejected body language and vulnerable placement on the floor prompts an understanding of the pervasive effects of subordination and is juxtaposed to Kane’s tall, proud body language. Thus it is evident how, through his use of cinematic techniques and symbolism, Welles provokes a response to the proactive idea of the corrupting nature of power and its pervasive impacts on relationships.
In some respects, Welles encourages an understanding of the film as a castigation of the capitalistic society it represents, where the materialism of the American Dream becomes an ironic allegory. That Kane dies in a sea of his ‘statues’ that symbolize his loneliness, and the foreshadowing comment of buying every ‘statue’ in Europe is evidence for Welles’ didactic message. His power propels a transformation from a well- intentioned young man, ironically intent on ensuing that “decent people…aren’t robbed and blind,” to a narcissistic and autocratic figure; a repugnant manipulation of the American Dream. Before signing his declaration of principles, Kane turns of the light, foreshadowing the corruption that will ironically follow. Kane becomes the antithesis of the goals he sets out epitomised through his shredding of the declaration. As suggested by critic Garry Groudus, Kane becomes “a bitter criticism of the American Dream”, joining the path of “money and power’” he set out to combat. That Kane bitterly tears up his own declaration and betrays his closest friend Leiland in a dramatically lit close up, is a dramatic metaphor of ‘power corrupts’. It is evident how Welles uses lighting and symbolism to highlight Kane’s transformation, prompting an understanding of the provocative and universal idea of misused power and its pervasive impacts.
Overall, through Welles manipulations of cinematic techniques, he prompts the responder to understand great and provocative ideas, causing us to respond with sympathy due to Kane’s primal desire for love and affluence, which we share with him.